Football: Sugar sweetens the sugar daddies

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The Independent Online
TOTTENHAM Hotspur, Chelsea and Celtic are three of the clubs most in danger of the kind of deal that led to Rupert Murdoch buying Manchester United, according to city analysts. But privately owned clubs such as Liverpool are more likely to resist attempts to take them over and turn them into multi-functional organisations.

Already Arsenal have admitted they are in talks with Carlton Communications while Aston Villa and Newcastle are reported to have begun negotiations with other media groups, or at least to be considering the option. In Scotland, reports have linked Celtic with a group of Japanese bankers.

Justin Urquhart Stewart, business planning director at Barclays Stockbrokers and one of the country's leading football business analysts, said floated companies are most at risk of being bought in the coming months. "I would say the softest peach on the tree are Spurs," he said. "Alan Sugar is also an investor and looks at Spurs as an investment. You wouldn't have to explain to him the benefits of a leisure combine adding significant value to the business."

Indeed, he has already turned down an pounds 80m bid by the investment company Enic, who have a 25 per cent stake in Rangers. Enic are now joining forces with United News and Media, Lord Hollick's empire which includes Anglia, HTV and Meridian ITV franchises, for a consortium bid.

While few would argue that shareholders of Manchester United, Spurs and any other floated clubs stand to gain instant profit from being incorporated into already existing companies, worries are intensifying that the average fan will lose out if the takeover trend continues. Kick-off times, which are already being tossed around to suit television, face further disruption. Ten years ago, it was hard to find a league game that didn't start on a Saturday afternoon. In future, it could be equally difficult to discover one that does.

"For individual clubs to align themselves to a major backer gives them a step up into a different league," said another media analyst. "But at the same time, the romanticism will disappear. The implications for the fans will be enormous. Kick-off times will vary and I believe ticket prices will rise no matter what the people at United say. Tribal loyalty will disappear: the share price will simply be driven by pay-per-view television."

WAITING FOR THE NEXT BIG DEAL

RIPE FOR PICKING

Tottenham Hotspur

The chairman Alan Sugar is a businessman first, and owner of a football club second. Although some would say he saved the club, he is increasingly irritated about media criticism of his role and might be tempted to sell his majority stake in the plc as recent reports of a bid by United News and Media and Enic suggest. Add to that the brand name of Spurs and the club's fan base, and you have an excellent incentive for a big buyer.

Chelsea

With a large number of foreign superstars signed in the last couple of years, Chelsea has a wage bill estimated at pounds 22m. The club is forecast to make pounds 5m profit this year on the back of its high-profile "sexy" team, but would face problems if Ken Bates's investments are not backed up by results. With the emergence of Chelsea Village, Bates has already seen the wisdom of locking into a multi-income business. With its fashionable location, the club would be a huge attraction for any interested party.

Celtic

The Scottish media has already reported that the beleaguered Celtic chief executive Fergus McCann is considering selling his 51 per cent holding and that the Far East firm Nomura Banking International is interested. Celtic's share price has plummeted in recent months and the defending Scottish champions would be ripe for plucking by a big new investor keen on exploiting the club's huge worldwide Catholic fan base, particularly in as yet untapped markets such as the United States.

Rangers

On paper, a bigger brand name than Celtic but already 25 per cent-owned by Enic, run by the Bahamas-based billionaire Joe Lewis, who has stakes in several other European clubs. Lewis could decide to take a controlling interest and develop a Murdoch-style operation if the European Super League takes off.

ALSO IN THE FRAME

Arsenal

Already involved in preliminary discussions with Carlton Communications, slightly surprising to many city analysts given the club's history as a long-established, privately owned business. In the end, however, money may perhaps talk even to the Highbury board.

Newcastle United

With a strong brand awareness, a fanatical fan base that would be attractive to pay-per-view television and a trendy dreadlocked manager, the club could entice considerable interest from outside. But its geographical position in the north-east may be a turn-off, as might all the recent internal instability.

Leeds United

No firm takeover bids yet reported but an advanced marketing strategy and large catchment area make the club a desirable proposition.

Everton

Peter Johnson has long been reviled by Evertonians because of his allegiance to Liverpool whom he has supported all his life. In recent months the pressure has grown on Johnson to resign and sell as Everton failed to perform on the pitch.

SAFE HAVENS?

Liverpool

Certainly almost as much brand awareness as Manchester United but any new investors would have to offer an awful lot to persuade the Moores family to sell. They would be more likely to float the club first.

Blackburn Rovers

Despite his millions, Jack Walker, who used to kick a ball around the local streets as a boy, is unlikely to part with his beloved club.

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